Chapter 10 – In Guezzam – Agadez 296 miles December 27 1938

Chapter 10

I have decided to post Chapter 10 in its entirety – I didn’t know what to leave out and I found this to be a delightful Chapter.

“The position was that we were due to leave In Guezzan at 12.30 and we actually left at 2.16, so we were 1 hour and 46 minutes behind schedule.  We had spent 28 minutes at In Guezzam. I allowed half an hour so I need not have been so needlessly enraged at the delay!  We were now starting on the 290 miles stage to Agadez, and this marks the end of the desert crossing proper; we felt that we were quite near our primary objective, Kano. Actually it was 750 miles away and we reckoned such distances seemed quite close and anyway we knew that the worst part of the crossing was over.

The track from In Guezzan to In Abbangarit, of which the latter consists quite simply of a well and nothing else, is the part of the Hoggar crossing which is most subject to sandstorms and we were quite prepared, in view of the appalling conditions we had met with thus far, to be involved in one of these pests of the desert at any moment. So liable is this part of the track to be swept by sandstorms, that the cairns marking the track here are replaced by iron stakes with the flags, exactly like those to be seen on the greens on a golf course. The track is perfectly flat, nothing but a bare expanse of sand with, here and there, dunes of sand rising from its surface; though the lines of flagged stakes stretching away into the distant are easy to follow. It is not an easy track to make good speed on, because patches of really deep sand abound and these are cut into deep ruts by passing vehicles. One would be travelling at a comfortable 50 mph on smooth sand, when suddenly the appearance of the surface changes to a kind of greyish colour, the wheels would sink and one’s speed would fall off immediately: then one would make a lightening change to second and stamp on the accelerator, up to third again and the engine speed rising, and then perhaps quickly down to second again for another deep patch. And so on. Always ready to swerve away to right or left sometimes half a mile or more from the line of flags to avoid stretches of deeply rutted track. Occasionally one found that these detours lead one in all sorts of difficulty; I remember that once Humfrey, going off on a line of his own, became embroiled with a lot of sand dunes which are of course if not exactly unclimbable, at any rate not conducive to ease of mind: having arrived in a neighbourhood where we appear to be completely surrounded by these unattractive objects he had, most abjectly, to make a complete circle and return on his tracks to where he would strike off in a new direction. This to the accompaniment of irate remarks from me about people who know better than the Trans-Sahara white marker! This sort of criticism he always took with a cheerful grin, as I may say, did I when the occasion arose for him to make the same sort of commentary on the course I had chosen!

However, we progressed pretty well and were quite satisfied with the progress when In Abbanjait drew near. This, as I said, consisted of a well and nothing else but suddenly a surprising spectacle was presented to our astonished eyes. At first we simply could not make out what these objects were that loomed up above the horizon in the light of the setting sun, but as we approached, we became convinced that we were suffering from hallucinations. No, we weren’t though by Jove, these objects were tents, large lordly European tents not the ramshackle tents of the Negro or the black camel Lais tents of the Tuareg, but real proper white canvas tents. Two of them, and near them cars and lorries. Intrigued by the spectacle we slowed down and were hailed as we stopped to look at them. Two white men approached the car, quite unmistakably Englishmen, and one of them said “Hello, are you Symons, by any chance?” Humfrey admitted that he was and a stranger went on, “I’m Colonel ___ (I am afraid I’ve forgotten his name) and we were told at Kano that you were expected.” He went on to ask how long we had been, what sort of journey we had and how pleased he was to have met us. Then he called to the black servants and asked what we would have to drink but, the devil of urgency seizing us, we explained that we were sorry but we were most anxious to get on. He accepted our apologies and called out “Cheerio and good luck” as we sped off again across the desert. In spite of our missed drink the little encounter had cheered as up. They were so thoroughly, sweetly British with clean shaven chins and immaculate clothes, their tents, their deck-chairs, their servants, their keen interested welcome, even their prompt offer of “Have a drink?”, that it makes one feel as though, after crossing this vast expand of French territory, one was indeed approaching Britain across the seas: and it heartened us for the long journey still ahead of us. We had done, and were still doing well; we had made a substantial gain of time since we left In Guezzam; we were well ahead of record time, and perhaps our luck was going to change and Africa give us a warmer welcome than it had vouchsafed up to date. It was. After darkness fell, suddenly with a bang as it does in the tropics, we rushed through the cool evening air, very grateful after the blazing heat of the day, with our Lucas lamps throwing a great path of brilliant light far ahead; the track was hard and good, smooth baked earth and we were cheered, too, by the appearance of vegetation, coarse grass, bushes, even trees. These were welcome sights after the barren emptiness of the great Sahara, now dropping behind with every revolution of our good engine. We were at the place which our log called “Teggeda Tecum” which Humfrey swears is a town but of which I have never seen any sign except a T turning off the straight track with a dirty piece of board on which is scrawled the word ‘Agadez’ with an arrow pointing down the left-hand track. We turned down this and sped on, our speed rarely dropping much below 50 mph though we did not consider it advisable to drive faster in case we came suddenly on some gully across the track. It was on this part of the track that, on the occasion of our record run to Kano two years before in the Rolls-Royce, we lost two hours, and pretty grim two hours they were. But that is another story. On this occasion there was no getting lost and in what seemed an amazingly short time, the imposing tower of the mosque of Agadez rose up against the black starlight sky and we were running quietly into this considerable town. There is a French garrison here, a hotel, and a large native population. The inhabitants are Seuussi who were stirred up by the German agents during the war to revolt against the French and they gave a lot of trouble before they were defeated. The palace of the Senussi chieftain is now the hotel, to whose hospitable portals we now directed our course.  As we drove up to the entrance, the manager, a Frenchman of course, ran out to meet us, “Monsieur Symons?” he queried “Ah Mr Symons,” he went on when informed “I was expecting you some hours ago, but I have heard nothing from In Guezzam (as usual, we had beaten the depannage telegram) nevertheless, everything is prepared if you will come this way.” He pointed us round to the side of the hotel when we saw six or seven Arab boys, cans of petrol, cans of oil, cans of water, funnels of various shapes and sizes “But how did you know exactly when we were coming?” we asked, surprised and delighted at his display of efficient organisation.

“Ah, Messieurs,” he exclaimed. “I was told to expect you at 6.50 and since then I have had a boy stationed on the top of the hotel to watch your lights. He had seen them coming for the last hour, so all is prepared.” French efficiency at its best!

Like lightning the petrol tank was full and, as we were rather dubious of being able to cover the 465 miles to Kano on our tank capacity of 31 gallons we took on board as precautionary measure a spare 4 gallon can. Although we had intended to go straight on and eat something as we travelled we were so impressed with the efficient arrangements made by the hotel manager that is we decided to have a meal here, feeling quite sure that it would be served promptly. We therefore asked him if we could have something to eat quickly. “Assurement Messieurs,” he replied, as if being asked to supply dinner to unexpected travellers at 10.30 at night was a perfectly normal procedure, “it’ll be ready in one little minute.” Before we went in, we put down the bed in the car as I, whose turn it was to be off duty, intended to sleep when we restarted. And went inside, into the lofty vaulted room with the carved Moorish columns meeting in an arch high above our heads, clean and white in the brilliance of the electric bulbs, for Agadez has its own town electricity supply. Hot water and cleaned towels were produced and, pulling off shirts, we indulged in the first wash we had had since we left Arak 1300 miles back in the heart of the desert. It felt good to be clean again, even if we did not waste time by shaving our three days growth of beard (fortunately both of us are fair, so we do not look quite so disreputable when unshaven as dark men do). We sat down at the cleaned, washed wooden table and prepared to enjoy our meal, and a good meal it was, though I do not remember of what it was comprised. We had bought in with us from the car a couple of half bottles of champagne, part of the store we had bought from England, as we felt that a little jollification would do us no harm and we deserved it after having crossed the desert faster than it had ever been crossed before.

As we sat, enjoying our meal and the champagne (this was decidedly warm but very comforting!) we studied the log, as we were entitled to consider that the main difficulty of the journey from Algiers to Kano was now over. We knew all about the track on from Agadez and though the first 100 miles or so would not be easy going, it was child’s play compared to what we had been through already. We were due at Agadez at 9.20 and we had actually arrived at 10.21, so were only one hour behind schedule. Our schedule time from In Guezzam to Agadez was 8 hours 50 minutes: so we had gained 45 minutes: we had actually average 36 1/2  mph for the 296 miles: after darkness fell we had averaged a fraction under 40 mph from In Abbanjait.

Once again I should like to point out that the ordinary traveler, driving an ordinary car, and the ordinary tourist could not hope to equal these speeds: and would do very well if he averaged 25 mph over this stretch. Our huge tyres and the superlative springing of the Wolseley, the careful weight distribution to which we had given an immense amount of thought, coupled with the fact that we are both expert long-distance drivers and experienced desert travellers, alone made such speeds possible. A commentary on the kind of travelling that a record breaker has to accomplish. I may say here that we left Arak at 9:05 p.m. and we arrived at Agadez at 11:40 p.m. the next night. We had covered 794 miles in these 26 ½ hours and our only stops had been 12 minutes at Tamaurasset and 28 minutes at In Guezzam, 40 minutes in all. Note that in 794 miles and, with the exception of the last 170 miles, this was over the most difficult part of the crossing!

That fact, which we had elucidated from the log book, meant that, provided we did not make abject asses of ourselves during the next 100 miles or so, either by losing our way or sticking in the sand; we had the Algiers – Kano record, our objective number one, in our pockets. Humfrey wrote out another cable for Thomas which the manager promised to dispatch in the morning, we paid our bill and were just preparing to leave when an unexpected and wholly delightful interlude occurred.  Seated at a large table was a party of ten or twelve French officers, obviously from the garrison of Agadez: these officers had changed from their service uniforms and were now taking their ease in the short jacket and the loose baggy trousers of the Arab. We had of course greeted and been greeted by them when we came in; they had, with the true courtesy of the race, left us in peace to consume our dinner. Now, as we prepared to leave, the man who had been sitting at the head of the table rose and came across to us. He was a magnificent figure of a man, well over six feet, straight as a ramrod and lithe as a deer: young and exceedingly handsome, with dark wavy hair and bold dark eyes, he was very picture of a dashing French officer with all the fire and elan of his race, a splendid type, the ideal lean saber.  In his right eye, he wore (of all things) a monocle and this completed the picture: he was an Onida guardsman come to life. He made a graceful bow to us, “Messieurs,” he said, “we have been told what you have done. Your performance in driving your car from Algiers to Agadez in 2½ days is altogether ‘formidable’. My companions and I will consider ourselves honored if you will take wine with us in celebration of your magnificent achievement.” What could we say? We were anxious to be on the road again but in the face of this handsome gesture, what was there for us to do? Humfrey, who speaks French like a native, replied that we should be only too delighted to comply with the invitation, and that we felt highly honored that our performance had met with their approbation. We moved over to their table, where room was made for us and bottles of champagne made a miraculous appearance. They were experienced desert travellers and discussed eagerly with us technical details of our journey; while our bold, laughing cavalier seized each bottle of champagne by the neck as it was emptied, and with a dexterous twist of the wrist sent it flying across the paved floor where it halted, unbroken to rest in a corner. This was evidently his star performance and never failed to arouse a huge applause from his boisterous companions. They were a grand, cheery crowd, perfectly sober, but brimming with high spirits, and the terrific, almost overpowering, personality of the handsome leader – whom they called “mon Capitaine” – made the whole scene almost too good to be true.

At last Humfrey remembered that we really must be going, and instantly they all rose to their feet, drank one last toast to our continued good fortune and trooped out to see us off. They were most interested in our Wolseley and they pronounced our huge tyres and our bed in the car, ‘tries practique’. We were proud of our good Wolseley when Humfrey pressed the starter and the engines sprang to life, murmuring its quiet song and murmuring as sweetly and silently as when we had left England 3000 miles back. A roar of cheers broke from the French officers and Humfrey let in the clutch and we slid off into the darkness on the last 460 mile lap of our journey to Kano.”

Chapter 9 – Tammuasset – In Guezzam 244 miles 27 December 1938

Chapter 9 pic

“Having used up our secret time reserve, we could now take stock of how we stood with regards to the schedule”.

 “According to the original timing we ought to have left Tamanrasset at 2.30 am, but as we left Algiers an ½ hour late, our corrected schedule time for leaving Tamanrasset was 5am. Actually it was 6.32, so we were an hour and a half behind time. I must explain that our new schedule, based on our actual time of leaving Algiers, would, if we managed to keep to it, have taken the Algiers – Kano record by 4 1/4 hours: from this it was clear that at the moment, having only lost 1 ½ hours we were still 2 and three-quarter hours inside the record. So we could go on with quiet winds.”

They descended from the Hoggar Mountains feeling in fine form. They had now been driving for nearly two days and nights on their journey and had covered 1250 miles. They were feeling fresher than when they started, and were both looking forward to the real crux of the desert crossing, which they should reach 120 miles from Tamanrasset. Bertie commented “If I have not mentioned our good Wolseley, it is simply because there was nothing to say about it. It was amazingly comfortable over the appalling tracks we had covered, the engine was running as smoothly and quietly as when we left England, and both the engine and transmission had answered every demand we had made upon them. As it was so monotonously reliable and trustworthy, we became more attached to it with every mile we traveled. What higher praise can one give to a good car than that?

They stopped for breakfast after 67 miles at a convenient stopping place, and the log entry was “aerodrome / water notice”. They were now down to 2400 feet and well clear of the Hoggar Mountains. “Humfrey produced some excellent tea with the aid of a Primus stove and we had sardines on Ryvita, finishing it with jam on Ryvita.  Altogether the most satisfactory meal”. Bertie was ever conscious of time and mentioned that breakfast took 25 minutes to prepare and eat: he thought it seemed a waste of time but they felt that they needed the break.

Bertie was driving and noted that the track had deteriorated terribly since they came along two years before in the Rolls. He goes into great detail about the terrain and how the driver had to make instantaneous decisions while maneuvering over deep ruts of a foot to 18 inches deep or more while traveling at fairly high speed, of about 45 mph. He found this driving most exhilarating.

About 20 miles beyond ‘Dunes on left’ they stopped, as they had decided that Humfrey, being a much more experienced desert driver than Bertie, should drive all the way over the most difficult part of the desert crossing. Bertie felt that this was of course the sensible course to adopt and merely good team work.

“Rock outcrops were now beginning to appear, and it is these rock outcrops that made the next 120 miles tricky. It is not advisable to drive over these lower rocks, for the sake of both tyres and the chassis and, in trying to avoid them, one may find oneself penned in by a series of really sharp ridged rocks. There’s no room to turn, one is travelling in deep sand and if one turns sharply on soft sand, the extra resistance causes the rear wheels to dig in instantly and one comes to rest stuck,” ensable” the French call it (literally ensanded) a much more expressive term than stuck – and with the prospect of perhaps some hours of digging to get out again.” 

They couldn’t afford to lose even two hours if they were to beat their own existing record, so it was with a certain amount of pleasurable anxiety that they set off after having stopped for 8 minutes to lower the tyre pressures from 26 pounds to 20 with the idea of getting more bearing surface on the soft going. The Dunlop Company had told them that it would be permissible to make use of pressures as low as 12 pounds provided the surface was sand, but in view of the interspersed roughly outcrops they did not consider it wise to go below 20 pounds.

Bertie’s job on this stretch was to assist Humfrey by telling him roughly the direction taken by the bus track that they had decided to follow and to keep an eye on the line of cairns to ensure that they did not wonder too far away from them. At about half past ten it was very hot and the temperature inside the car was 100 degrees. Bertie commented that, “it was the true desert and we were thoroughly enjoying ourselves.” They were reminiscing about their previous Sahara trips and passed an abandoned Renault saloon that they had examined 2 years earlier when on another trip.

Bertie recalls the story of General Laperrine’s Citroen: “A little further on we both exclaimed with one voice, “General Laperrine’s Citroen”. This is a burnt out wreck of an open touring car which caught fire owing to a short circuit and was completely destroyed. General Laperrine, one of the French conquerors of the Sahara, was a man who died an epic death in the desert, when, on his very first flight across the Sahara, the aeroplane crashed. He and his two pilots were stranded – they, not knowing how long, if ever, it would be before they were found and rescued. They had with them little water, very very little, and it is certain death to be caught the Sahara without water. This sun will burn the life out of one in a very short time and no human being can survive without water. General Laperrine refused point-blank to drink any of the water, saying to the pilots “no, you are young men with your lives before you. I am an old man whose life’s work is nearly finished; therefore you must divide the water between you in order that you may live as long as possible in the hope of the rescue.” When they protested, he said “there is no more to said. It is my order”. They were found three days later. The general was dead. As the general stood by his resolve and drank no drop of water during these three days. The two young pilots were alive and recovered.”

The track became more and more difficult as they neared what they called “Black mountains”. The track was so strewn with loose boulders and sharp stony outcrop that they were forced to follow the tracks of other vehicles with the result that the sand between the rocks was scored into deep ruts from which they leapt over rocky ridges and crashed down into the ruts. Bertie mentions how that “It is almost incredible that any car can survive such treatment”. This was the most tricky part of the crossing of the Tanezrouft: it was close by “Black Mountains”, where Humfrey and his crew had spent 23 hours digging themselves out of the sand on his first journey to Kano in 1935, so he was nervous and keyed to the utmost as they approached this spot.

They passed another landmark called “Curious rocks” and the desert became “the true desert at last, just as one sees it on film and as it so rarely is at any rate on the Hoggar route. Flat, empty and resolute, while the horizon with nothing to give it any prospective seems only a mile or two away and one has the illusion that one is in a great saucer of sand. We were down out of the mountains now, of course, and back at the normal Sahara level, about 1200 feet above the sea which is the usual height of the desserts all the way across Africa from the Nile to the Atlantic Ocean. The heat was appalling and one could not believe that only a few hours ago we had been shivering even in heavy coats at Tamanrasset.”

In Guezzam, was a tiny fort, of perhaps 100 feet square, with battlemented walls and a huge wooden gate; it was a desert post and once a desert fortress of France behind whose parapets the soldiers of the Foreign Legion stood guard, tri-colours floating above their heads. This is what Bertie wrote about In Guezzam; “What did In Guezzam mean to us? It meant simply another stage – and the most dreaded stage at that – of our journey completed. As I have said, on a record breaking trip like ours we longed ardently to arrive at each place on our route, not for the sake of the place itself but because it marked another stage completed. Once that stage was over we put it completely behind us and never gave it another thought, all our attention transferred from the name of the end of that stage to the name at the end of the next. A dull proceeding, you think? Not at all. Our arrival at each place was a thrill, eagerly awaited and lovingly savoured, but soon forgotten as we left it behind and transferred our hopes to the next stage of our journey. We were giving no thought as yet to end places as Cape Town, Nairobi or even Kano: the end of the immediate stage on which we were at the moment embarked was as far as we allowed our imaginations to travel.”

They were encouraged to find that the approach to the fort had a hard surface which alleviated the previous trips problems of sticking in the sand at the entrance. They were also delighted to be able to use a real full-sized Shell pump, which would obviate the necessity of re-filling by the very unhandy method of using cans refilled from a 50 gallon barrel.

Bertie speaks about “the horrible business; for the volatile spirit gives off the most noxious fumes in these very high temperatures – the temperature now was in the neighbourhood of 130 degrees in the full blaze of the sun – and the smell and taste linger in one’s nose and mouth for long after the re-filling process is completed: so we were delighted to see the new Shell pump. We stopped by it and confidently blew the horn. The white attendant and his native boys ran out to greet us with the devastating news that the tank of the pump was alas empty. Did this mean they had no petrol at all? We queried anxiously. Not at all, they had plenty but it was in barrels. So the hideous business of filling cans from barrels and tipping them into the tank had to be faced. I attended to this while Humfrey went off with the “Chef de Piste’ to send a cable to Thomas of Wolseley, who would, we knew, be waiting anxiously to hear of our progress. Cables to England from In Guezzan cost only 2s a word. While the tank was being refilled by this vilely tedious process – incidentally one barrel was soon emptied, another had to be loaded and the necessary implement was not of course to be found, except after a long search that drove me to a frenzy at the delay, for I was all impatient to be off again – I inspected the oil level and radiator and found no addition was required to either. Then Humfrey came back after sending his cable and, finding the re-fueling not yet completed, he invite me to come along and have a drink, for In Guezzan can supply whisky and reasonable cool water, but I had by this time under the appalling heat of the blazing sun thoroughly lost my temper with the slowness of the refueling process and I muttered something about not being able to waste time drinking if this – refueling was – well ever to be finished at all. Humfrey, like the supreme tactician that he is, made no answer but went quietly off to have his drink while I stopped by the car in the fiery sun, urging the Arab boys to get on with the job. Of course I should have been much more sensible to have one with him, had my drink in the shade and returned to find the job done but I was so frightfully hot and so fearfully cross that I was determined to stay where I was. Humfrey has the blessed gift of repose which I, regret to say, I do not possess, and the quality of never allowing himself to be flustered or antagonized by difficulties. He is the most patient of men and I one of the most impatient. Even when the tank was full, I would not go and join him but turned the car around ready for the re-start and sat stubbornly awaiting his return. He came back at last, cool and unhurried as usual, and we set off. All my rancour disappeared immediately we were on the move, again, and while I sat by his side, dripping with perspiration, I studied the log.”

79 Years ago Bertie and Humfrey were about to set off on the Cape Record.

I will be tracking Bertie and Humfrey’s London to Cape Town trip on Facebook from the 23rd December 2017 – on this day 79 years ago, on Friday the 23rd December 1938 they departed from London on their epic journey. I will put up regular posts showing their progress in miles on their journey to Cape Town and you will be able to follow their progress on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/caperecord/

Chapter 8 – Arak – Tamaureasset 254 miles 26/27 December 1938

Chapter 8Up until now I have been editing and condensing each chapter. In this chapter I have decided to release it in it’s original format to give readers an idea of the detail that Bertie put into every moment of their epic journey. 

We left Arak, to the cheers of our friend, the lorry driver, and monsieur and madame the bordj-keepers, at 5 minutes past nine.  We had put down our bed before leaving, much to the delights of the assembled populace, and Humfrey retired to rest as soon as we started, as it was my turn to drive.  Directly I took the wheel and set off through the darkness, my attack of acute misery left me and I quite enjoyed my first hours driving.  The first 27 miles from Arak is a long gradual climb from the bottom of the gorge of Arak up to the plateau whence the track eventually climbs up into the Hoggar Mountains, in the centre of which is situated Tamaureasset our next objective.  The first 27 miles was not easy driving.  The gorge here is very narrow, its precipitous sides which tower almost vertically over 2000 feet were only about a quarter of a mile apart. Each of these crossings need a considerable degree of care as the drop or the bank onto the sand might be as much as a foot high with a similar climb out on the other side. There are many small trees darted here and there and the track winds in and out of these in quite bewildering fashion.

I found quite enough to keep me awake, but in one way this sort of driving was preferable to that of the night before: there were plenty of objects for the beam of the lamps to strike and therefore they appeared to be giving much more light. We had agreed before we started we would make no attempt to drive fast for, as this was our second continuous nights driving, we considered it imperative to ensure, as far as possible, that the one who was not at the wheel should get undisturbed sleep. I therefore made no effort to increase the speed and kept going at a very comfortable pace.

When you reached the top of the gorge, you felt above the level of the bordj of Arak, the country opened out and the character of the track alters completely. It becomes rocky instead of sandy and care is needed to avoid large boulders but it is, on the whole, much easier driving. As the driving became easier, I was able to lean back in the comfortable seat and, partially at least, relaxed. This brought on that terrible feeling, the bane of long-distance driving, longing to sleep. One’s head droops, one’s eye lids begin to close and vision becomes misty as one’s tired eye muscles are unable to hold objects in focus. To try to see clearly, one screws one’s eyes up tightly and, on opening them again, all is well. In a minute the horrible effect reappears: objects are visible but not clearly; they have hard outlines and it is hard to distinguish what they are. One’s eyelids droop and they feel so heavy that it seems as though no superhuman effort could ever persuade them to lift again. Fiercely one forces one’s eyes to open and savagely one attempts to focus to sharpen the blurred outlines of things: over and over again the hideous symptoms repeat themselves and the grim struggle goes on. The struggle to keep awake: the struggle to see. It needs experience to tell whether the attack of sleepiness is only a passing phase possible to fight through and out to the other side to wakefulness, or whether it will defeat one in the end. If the latter, it means that this one is conquered and suddenly one drops off to sleep, to be awakened, as with a resounding crash, the car left to itself, strikes some object or, may be one drops off to sleep never to awaken again. Almost every year: the Monte Carlo Rally, which entails 4 nights continuous driving and the winter condition in Europe, some car is wrecked; someone is killed, owing to the driver falling asleep at the wheel. If, in the light experience, the driver knows that he will be unable to fight down the longing to sleep, there is only one thing for him to do, and it is madness not to do it: it is that madness which has caused the deaths in the Monte Carlo Rally. The thing to do is to awaken one’s sleeping co-driver and hand over to him while one satisfies this craving for sleep. A few minute sleep will do it and every long-distance driver must learn to make this decision without hesitation as soon as he recognises that it is and unsafe for him to continue. I know, and understand, the reason why some drivers will not do this obvious thing. It is the feeling that they are showing the white feather, are doing something cowardly and unworthy of their manhood, acts, waking their partner and saying frankly “I can’t go on. I’m too sleepy too be safe.” They are wrong, bitterly wrong. It is far more commendable to know when one cannot continue and admitted, then to go on driving and cause an accident. It is absolutely necessary for partners on a really long day and night drive to have complete confidence in each other and to know that if the driver is dangerously sleepy, he would awaken the one sleeping. Without this confidence there is disquietude when one is not driving which saps the reserves of endurance that it is so necessary to conserve on a long journey. Confidence in each other then is an absolute essential to success in any undertaking such as ours. Humfrey and I had absolutely, complete confidence in each other in this respect, as, I may add, in all others! I was quite confidence in my own mind that my present attack of sleepiness was only temporary one and would pass off. Indeed, after about 20 minutes of torture it did so: my eyes cleared and I was able to see properly again. Meantime the track was still climbing and eventually at 2500 feet the “field of gray stones”, as we called it. I do not pretend to know what this really is but the name we have given it describes its appearance quite accurately. Stones, varying in size from six inches high to two or three feet, lie about all over this peculiar area: the stones are not touching each other, still less are they piled upon one another. They are for the most part from 3 to 6 feet apart, spread over rocky ground as though they had been scattered by some mammoth sower. All these stones are of a dark grey colour and, and seen in the light of the headlamp beams, the “field of gray stones” presents a curiously dismal and eerie appearance. The track has been cleared of stones, but it winds about in serpentine fashion to dodge the largest boulders which it was presumably found to be too much trouble to move. We had lost a lot of time in the 60 miles from Arak, mainly because the schedule was based on covering this stretch by daylight instead of in the dark: schedule speeds were always lowered when darkness fell as my experience has been that it is far too dangerous to attempt to drive fast across the desert in the darkness. At the field of gray stones Humfrey woke: I had done a little more than my two hours and I felt overpowering sleepiness coming over me again. He awakened refreshed from his good sleep and I took his place on the comfortable Dunlopillo cushions. Rolling myself up in the rug and my leather coat, for it was very cold now and I would be colder when we climbed higher to the mountains, I settled down to my first sleep since my two hours or so of troubled slumber on the steamer before reaching Algiers. This was nearly 48 hours ago and I was very sleepy.

At first I found my position in the car produced a very odd effect.  It seemed the car was shaking from side to side but in about ten minutes I had got used to this and dropped into a heavy sleep, from which I did not wake till I found the car stationary and Humfrey pulling at my shoulder. I woke with a start and sat up immediately. One’s first thought on being awakened suddenly when traveling like this is that something has happened and I probably said “What’s up?” Humfrey said that he was frightfully sleepy and asked if I was all right to drive. I replied that I was perfectly all right and took over the wheel. I found that he had done his two hours and he told me before he went off to sleep that the track was sandy and that it was quite difficult to keep in touch with the cairns. I started off, feeling very fit and refreshed after my good sleep, and found conditions exactly as he had said. There will wide stretches of deep soft sand that meant rapid changes down to the third, or even second, gear and full throttle. At first I was cautious over these gear changes fearing to wake Humfrey, but as he showed no sign of stirring I became less careful. These patches of soft sand give one the most peculiar feeling, particularly at night, as the change in the appearance of the surface is not noticeable. One is running comfortably along on smooth hard sand at perhaps 40 mph when suddenly the whole car swerves to sink, and giant hands clutch at the wheel is so that one’s speed diminishes alarmingly and quite suddenly, while the tyres give outs that queer shrill scream “Wheee Wheee”. Instantly one becomes alert, makes a snap change – down to third and stamps savagely on the accelerator (there is no fear of getting wheel-spin on sand so one can use full throttle); but at the same time staring anxiously ahead to try and pick the best course. It is really rather exhilarating, the sensation of racing across the deep holding sand with the screaming tyres singing their song and the engine giving out that hard deep notes that betokens a wide throttle opening. But it is hard work, because one can even let one’s attention stray for one instances, and all the time one’s eye on those little heaps of stones that of the only guide to one’s direction. After time, I saw tracks of the lorries tyres -probably the lorry of our friend at Arak – and noticed that sometimes, while I was keeping near to the cairns he seemed to have wondered away so that his tracks disappeared from the fan spread  by the lamps. I noticed that whenever this happened it seemed that I came to deep sand and gradually became clear to me that as he had come along here in daylight he had of course been able to see these stretches and swerved to avoid them. I was determined to experiment and the next time that his tracks swung away from the cairns I followed them, being careful, of course, to keep out of his actual wheel-marks – one never drives in someone else’s tracks in the desert for fear that he may have stuck or formed a ‘graveyard’. Immediately I had done is, I regretted it. It was horrible to feel that the guiding cairns were away somewhere else on my left and that it was quite impossible to find them again unless the track I was following led back to them. I must explain the statement because it might seem to anyone having no experience desert driving that all I had to if I wanted to get back to the cairns, knowing them to be on my left, would be to turn to the left and keep on going until I came to the line of cairns. It seemed obvious to do this is an almost certain way of getting lost and remember that is getting lost in the desert may mean death. The reason that this apparently obvious course is almost equivalent to committing suicide is this. Suppose, as in the present case, I am following a pair of tracks with the certain knowledge that the cairns are perhaps quarter of a mile away to my left and I decide that I will leave the tracks and return to the line of cairns. With the idea in mind I swing away to the left and immediately I lose the tracks I am absolutely lost. I do not know whether I am going straight or round in a circle, I do not know whether I am traveling north, south, east or west, I do not know in which direction the cairns lie, and worse still I do not know in which direction the track I was following lie now. I am absolutely, utterly, completely lost.

If this dreadful thing does happen, that one suddenly loses both the cairns and the tracks one has been following, there is any one thing to do. Remember that you cannot stop and think things out for if you are traveling over soft sand a minimum be speed of say 20 mph is necessary to prevent sinking in the sand, so one has to think while traveling. The only safe course to follow in a case like this is to turn one steering wheel say 30 degrees and hold it absolutely rigid at that. By this means one will, in due course, completed a circle of large radius which will bring one back to one’s own tracks in the sand. On striking them turn immediately and follow them religiously until one reaches again the point at which one turned off the tracks and one had been following before, cling close to these and don’t lose them. There’s no other way to avoid being completely lost and as I said, to the lost in the Sahara is to be dead.

On a Rolls-Royce trip, one night in a moment of carelessness I did this very thing. I suddenly realised I had lost the cairns, but was pretty sure they were on my left, so I made a wide circle in that direction holding the steering wheel absolutely firm and rigid. In time I completed the circle and came back to my tracks in the sand without finding the cairns. I was still convinced that they were on my left so I made a wider circle and soon enough I found the blessed cairns and mighty glad I was to see them! If I had lost my head and gone wondering about looking at the line of cairns, well one’s bones might now be whiting under the Sahara sun.

After this interruption let us return to where we were before the diversion occurred. I said that I regretted following the lorries tracks in the sand as soon as I lost sight of the cairns: nevertheless I stuck to them and after a mile or so they returned to the line of cairns not having led me into any very unpleasant places, so when they diverged again I followed them, acting on the theory that they must be some reason invisible to me why our friend on his lorry driving over this route in daylight had left the mark track. So my turn of driving passed: sometimes it was difficult, sometimes easy, that we were at any rate progressing. At last the bordj of In Salah loomed up by the side of the track. This is a comparatively new rest house built by the French and, though it exactly resembles, both in outline and in interiors, apartments in a real desert fort, in point of fact it was only built as a rest house and not as a military post, and has never been occupied as such.  I passed In Ekker without stopping and, glancing at the dashboard clock and doing a rapid sum, I found that we had lost 80 minutes on our schedule in the 144 miles we had come from Arak.  Well, considering that we had expected to be at In Ekker just after nightfall, that we had actually driven the whole way in the darkness and that we had been traveling quietly in order to ensure as far as possible comfortable rest for the off-duty man, it was perhaps not so bad we had always found this is a slow part of the Sahara crossing, particularly the early part when the track is winding and difficult.

Soon after passing In Ekker, I awoke Humfrey and handed over to him as I was beginning to feel sleepy again. It was now 3 o’clock in the morning and bitterly cold.  We had reached an altitude of 3000 feet and were still gradually climbing: we should continue to climb until we reached Tamauresset,100 miles on, by which time we should have reached our summit of 4200 feet.

I wrapped myself in everything I could find, lay down on the bed and was asleep in a minutes while Humfrey drove steadily forward through the night. As I slept, we passed to the village of In Amquel, the only purely native village between El Golea and Agadez. It is a queer place, as I remember it from our previous journey. It lies in the small depression in the mountains and past it runs a little water course, presumably fed at times of rain – for rain falls with some frequency here in the altitudes – from high peaks surrounding it. The little stream is usually dry but I imagine that it accounts for the presence of the village at this spot, as the nearby, infrequent, water supply makes the soil fertile.

In the bed of the stream reeds grow thickly and from these reeds the village is built. The huts are built of reeds covered with mud and they are thatched with reeds. There are in all, I suppose, about 14 of these huts and the passage between the two rows of them is so narrow that the overhanging eaves of thatch brush against the side of the car, I should like to congratulate the Town Planning Committee of In Amquel on their foresight in planning the entrances to their huts on the side away from the street! (British town-planning authorities, please copy!!) Though I can hardly think that the amount of traffic through In Amquel, the two vehicles a week, is sufficient to warrant this cultured modern feature! I was still sleeping soundly when Humfrey shook me. “Tamanraaset in sight”, he said.  I shook off the numerous covering that I had spread over myself and sat up. It was daylight and all around us the high peak of the Hoggar Mountains towered black and forbidding against the clear blue of the dawn sky.  It was very cold; the thermometer fitted inside the car registered just over 40 degrees.

We were travelling down the long straight sandy track which runs towards the town, between a double line of round red sandstone pillars, probably 3 feet in diameter and 20 feet high, that the French, true artists that there are, have erected as a kind of triumphal avenue leading into the town. It always gives me a thrill, I don’t quite know why, when one enters this broad avenue of trees (was the French designer thinking of the long avenues of trees on the great national highways of his beloved France, near the 2000 miles away?) and races between them over the smooth sandy road towards little town. Tamaurasset is a jolly place. The houses, built in the Moorish style, are of red sandstone: the wide streets are gay with flowers and trees, real green trees, are set in the garden. There’s plenty of water in Tamaurasset and desert sand, freely watered becomes very fertile. There’s the large French garrison here, housed in a fine red sandstone fort within the town and, in consequence, there is much social life. The climate, owing to the high elevation, is pleasant: it is hard, of course, but there is always a breeze, and nights are cool. Frost is not unknown. There is in addition an excellent Trausatt hotel, though we did not have time to visit it on this occasion.

It was 6.20am when we drove to the Shell pump, to where 3 Shell attendants were sleeping on the sand beside it. Again an evidence of the far reaching influence and perfect organisation of the Shell Company. While one of these attendants raced off to wake the Arab superintendent, the others expeditiously filled our tank from the pump.  When the superintendent arrived running, he apologised for his absence but said that he had waited for us for some hours last night, as he had been advised that we should arrive at ten o’clock.

He had then retired to his house near by leaving 3 men at the pump with instruction to call him when we came. We assured him as we quite understood, and that we were more than satisfied. We filled up, examined oil and water levels -, took a drink of brandy, we were shivering with cold, and set of on our next stage of 244 miles to In Guezzan. We stopped for 12 minutes at Tamaurasset, for such is record-breaking, alas!

Here’s an extract in Bertie’s hand writing.

Chapter 8 extract

Chapter 7 – In Salah – Arak 180 miles 26 December 1938

Chapter 7

It was now 12.53 and the sun was high in the sky: the heat was terrific and the glare from the sand seared our eyes.  We decided to try a new gadget which Humfrey had got Wolseley to make up.  It consisted of 4 strips of green celluloid about six inches deep and the width of half of each of these strips was fitted with two suckers the idea being that they should be stuck on the screen, two above the line of sight and two below, so that we would look through the narrow slot.  They were an instantaneous success and as we looked through the slot between the two green strips we congratulated ourselves on a complete solution of the glare problem.  Sun glasses are a fearful nuisance as they impaired visibility to such an extent as to be almost dangerous where it is absolutely necessary to have really clear vision in order to avoid obstacles.  We never used them at all on this journey but made continual use of our invaluable green celluloid strips.

The first few miles after leaving In Salah were much like the last 15 miles into it, deep soft sand and dunes, but here and there interspersed with patches of gravel, which promised better things for the future and we were feeling very cheerful, rather dirty, as we had not had a wash since we left El Golea.

After about 27 miles, the surface improved and we were able to get along better.  This position appears in our log-book as “Get on the gravel” and readers may be amused to hear the names we have given to the next four logging points.  They are “Descent escarpment (zig zag)” “Well on left”, “Climb slate hillocks”, and “High cliff with two Cairns on top”. They are, of course, no villages so one is reduced to using this kind of language in order to identify places and distances.  We descended the “escarpment (zig-zag)” and passed to be “Well on left” and it was at “Climb slate hillocks” that we struck trouble. The slate hillocks are noticeable for the fact that the slate outcrop – it may not be slate but it looks like it! – does not lie flat on the ground and like the tiles on the roof they stand up on edge, so to speak; thus presenting the unfortunate tyres with a series of sharp cutting edges to run on.  Actually when we examined the damage we saw that the tyre had been cut crosswise of the tread with deep a gash right through the canvas.  The heat was sweltering and a thermometer inside the car registering 102 degrees, when we set to work to change the wheel.

Bertie explains the difficulty they had in trying to get their “much prized hydraulic jack” to raise the car to change the tyre. It was not able to do the job. The next option was to unpack the rear locker of the car where they had packed a “small triple lift screw jack” which they had packed for emergencies. It too was not “man enough” to do the job. The problem was the tyre was flat and the car had to be lifted high enough to fit the new tyre.

There were problems with the jack and finally they built a ramp of stones that the car was pushed up – Bertie said “we must build up a ramp of stones: then we must push the car off the jack, and drive it along so that the punctured wheel climbs the ramp: then jacket up as far as we can with a rock under the jack and demolish the ramp so that the wheel will be suspended high enough.” He explains in great detail how they eventually “lifted the wheel (which with its monster tyre weighed 82 pounds) in that terrific temperature and with the tenderness of a man handling a baby; was a grisly difficult job but at last it was done and the wheel on.  We went to lower the jack but found that this last lift was its expiring efforts and nothing would induce it to budge.  We weren’t going to let a little thing like that bother us now and we pushed the car off the jack again without a semblance of caution.  The thing was bust anyhow, so what did it matter?

After repacking the car both Humfrey and Bertie were “not looking our best” and they decided to wash using water from the water tanks – with soap and plenty of rags.

Bertie explains the fear they had of sunstroke and why they kept their shirts on “It was too risky to take off our shirts – one can get sunstroke in the desert through one’s spinal column, as we both knew”

The wheel change had taken 45 minutes and they now had 1400 mile from Kano where they were to collect their new tyres but with no usable jack.

From traveling in the Sahara numerous times, there were many places they passed and never actually went to see and Bertie pondered about these places: “At last we reached our next logging points “Gap in hills, Monument on left” this is the sort of thing that makes record-breaking so exasperating. This is the fifth time that Symons has passed this intriguing object, yet he has never been able to spare time to investigate it.  Nevertheless, there it stands, open for examination. The rocky hills, perhaps 200 feet was so in height, are broken in a kind of saddle and they perched on another hill in the distance and visible through the gap is what is unmistakably a monument. It is a tall obelisk of stone; in memory of what or of whom? Shall I ever know? I wonder.”

The track changed in character from sand to slate, outcrops to the “fech–fech” and at times driving at 15m.p.h. over large loose stones where conditions were “altogether too bad”.

At the gorge of Arak they came to a tiny fortress that was “converted to cater for more peaceful needs, nestling close under the 2000 feet high cliffs at the deepest part of the gorge. Travelers arriving here are greeted by a cheery Frenchman and his wife who are only too anxious to do all they can to make this a little bit of France. They greeted us with enthusiasm; they were of course expecting us some hours earlier having been warned by the Shell Company at Algiers of the probable time of our arrival, though once again we had beaten the depannage telegram. We replenished our petrol tank, no oil or water being needed, and then proposed to embark on a job which we viewed with some distaste. For some time we had been gradually becoming convinced that our steering was getting stiff and we had decided that when we reached Arak we would give it some attention with the grease-gun. Here Humphrey’s proverbial knack of falling on his feet to which I have already referred, came to the fore. We were definitely not looking forward to the job. We were tired and hot and dirty and hungry and very, very thirsty. We wanted a wash and food and a drink. We did not want to lie about under a motor car pushing grease into the nipples. We didn’t have to.

Parked in the yard of the bordj, there was a colossal French lorry which had arrived that day from Tamaurasset on its journey with its driver, a typical burly French man, with all the not exaggerated fabled politeness of his race, put himself immediately at our disposal when he heard what we proposed to do. He organised the whole thing, showed us where to place the front of the Wolseley over a pit, produced from his lorry the world’s largest grease-gun, ordered us off and, descending into the pit, and got to work.

We were due at Arak, according to a new timing, at 3:05 p.m. and we had actually arrived at 7.28, so we were now four hours and 23 minutes behind our schedule.  When I told Humphrey this he was filled with horror. “Good Lord!” he said, “what time were we due at Kano?” “At 1.15” I replied. “And what time have we got to be there to beat the Algiers Kano record?” he asked. I did the necessary sums.” Before 5:30 p.m.  tomorrow,” I said. “Good heavens” he exclaimed after thinking for a minute or two, “then if we are four hours and 23 minutes late now and do our average from here, we shan’t be there till 5.38.  That’ll be too late.” I smiled at his face of consternation. “Don’t worry” I said. “We are quite all right. You see, I had allowed for a stop of 4 1/2 hours, at Tamaurasset, as it’s no use leaving there before 2:30 a.m. (I will explain why later) “So it means that instead of being four hours and 23 minutes late here, we can cut the stop at Tamaurasset to a quarter of an hour and we shall therefore only be a few minutes down on schedule.”

I explained carefully. “If we are here at nine o’clock, we shall be there at five o’clock tomorrow morning, and can leave at 5.15 after refueling.  Now on our new time from Algiers, we’re due to leave Tamaurasset 4.30 so we shall only be three-quarters of an hour down, and well ahead of record”

He lightened up at once. “I thought probably it wasn’t as bad as it sounded”, he said “I know your trick of keeping secret reserves of time some way up your sleeve.” I laughed. “Anyway,” I said “we haven’t done so badly, considering the awful conditions.  We had come 1014 miles and have taken 33 1/2 hours, so we had averaged roughly 30 mph including all stops.”

Humfrey and Bertie returned to the car to find the lorry driver had greased the steering and he had cleaned the windscreen. He commented that “It had been a pleasure to meet the messieurs” and to be able to do a little to help them; he was, in fact, more than proud to have been of some small assistance to them in their so “sportif” undertaking. In the end, he almost made us feel as though we have been doing him a favour in allowing him to work for an hour on our car!” He also informed them that the track to Tamaurasset was in very good condition which “was a very excellent piece of news”.

Chapter 6 – Sahara Crossing El Golea – In Salah 262 miles 26 December 1938

Chapter 6

 

 

It was 4.23am, of course, still dark when we left El Golea. It was my turn to drive so Humfrey said “I’m going to put down the bed and try and get some sleep.” He did so, wrapped himself up in the stolen rug referred to before and was promptly asleep. It was very cold, as it can be in the desert at night, but I was quite sure that, in view of Desuoyer’s as to the state of the track, I should be quite warm enough soon (desert driving is very hot work!) so I did not feel it necessary to wear an overcoat.

Immediately I found that what we had been told was quite correct. The track seemed to have disappeared altogether: it was littered with debris and stones and buried under heaps of sand which was not easy to negotiate in the darkness while at the same time keeping a sharp look-out for the cairns. Soon after leaving El Golea the track runs, or used to run, beside a ‘shott’ or dried up lake. These shotts are features of the northern Sahara: they were originally huge shallow lakes formed in the courses of the rivers which used to run northwards to the Mediterranean from the Hoggar Mountains. When the Sahara became desiccated, the rivers ceased to flow and these ‘shotts’ were left: in the first place filled with salt or brackish water but now dry and covered with a layer of salt. It is from the shotts that is obtained the salt which is the keenest need of the dwellers in hot deserts and which formed an important part of the merchandise carried by the Sahara caravans. Shotts are duplicated in the South African desserts by what are called ‘pans’.

Bertie describes in great detail how at the beginning of each season – in October, lorries of the SATT went out to see what the roaming desert winds had done during the heat of summer and then to make alterations to the route. Driving was quite challenging and Bertie was very conscious of avoiding rocks that could damage the tyres – as had happened during the Rolls Royce expedition.

The Dunlop Company had gone to great lengths to ensure they had no tyre troubles on the Wolseley Cape Record journey. There was only an incident when one tyre cover was cut nearly in half by a sharp slate outcrop – more details in a later chapter.

Symons has twice been to Timbuktu by this western route – known as the Tamezuft – over which a bus service is operated by Compagnie Transsataiienne, – but he prefers the Hoggar Mountain route, first because the scenery is more varied (the Tamezuft route has one 600 mile stretch of nothing but bare sand) and secondly, and far more importantly to us from the point of view of making a second run, it is 600 miles shorter from El Golea to Kano.

As Symons was sleeping peacefully when we past it, no time was entered in the log for Timimona Corner and I drove along slowly and as gently as possible in order not to wake him. The track was quite undoubtedly, as Desuoyens had told us at El Golea, in a very much worse condition than it had been 2 years before and I became convinced, as I went on that we were going to lose more time.

Dunlopillo
From Symon’s book ‘Both seats let down and formed full-length dunlopillo beds. Beneath each seat was a 5 Gallon water tank. Note the battery of thermos flasks in the partition, the huge 9 inch Dunlop tyres and the position of the filler for the 32 gallon petrol tank fitted inside the body.

Once there was day light travelling became much easier. They passed Fort Minibel which was one of the old disused desert forts which have now been turned into a boarding or rest house – for travelers. Humfrey made the necessary entries in the log book and took over the wheel. (Oh, how I’d love to find the log book.) They restore the passenger’s seats to its uprights position as Bertie had no inclinations to sleep.

We had left El Golea at 4.25 a.m. being then, one hour 55 minutes behind schedule.  We had come 89 miles to Fort Minibel and our schedule allowed 2 hours 10 minutes for this.  This was the time we had taken on the Rolls Royce for when the track had been hard and good, and we had been able to average 41 m.p.h.: now under the infinitely worse conditions we had taken 2 hour 45 minutes and average only 33m.p.h.  This meant that we were now two hours 30 minutes behind schedule.

We had now reached the dreary desolate waste of the Tademait proper which stretches for 120 miles in all its bleak hideousness.  It is the sea of black stones and the clear track runs straight to the horizon so that here at least the cairns are quite unnecessary.  When we crossed it before we had simply become bored to death with its dull ugliness.  Now we found it any thing but dull!  The

Unprecedented rain had apparently penetrated the iron hard soil beneath the stones and the buses passing over the track while it was still wet and soft had cut deep ruts in the surface, ruts a foot or more deep. The sun had then baked these ruts iron hard. No one would call our crossing of the Tademait dull! It was the continual struggle to keep the wheels from being trapped in one or the other of the cavernous ruts, which criss-crossed each other madly where some vehicles coming along while the ground was still soft, had rushed from side to side to try to avoid being caught in  the previous tracks.

No, crossing the Tademait Plateau under these conditions was very far from dull! Humphrey wrenched and struggles with the kicking steering wheel as he used every atom of his skill to choose the best path: sometimes in the middle so that if our course could have been plotted, it would have appeared somewhat like that of a war-time naval convoy! One single mistake might have meant hours of delay or a wrecked car. As he was compelled to concentrate all his attention on the track immediately in front of our wheels, I kept a sharp look out ahead for ‘graveyards’ or similar major obstacles so that I would sometimes say to him, ”Look out, there’s a graveyard 200 yards ahead on the right side,” in order that he could begin to work over to the other side and not be suddenly confronted with this on the path he was following. It wasn’t at all dull, but we were both very annoyed at what we felt was a hideous waste of time.

We were very pleased with ourselves and the good Wolseley and we thoroughly enjoyed our breakfast. It was now 10 o’clock in the morning and the sun was very hot, so that it is inadvisable to venture outside the car without sun helmets. So intense is the sunlight that if one dares to expose the bare head, even for a moment, to it one goes down with sunstroke as if one is clubbed: indeed, in an open car with the normal type fabric Lord! it is absolutely necessary to wear a sun helmet all the time for the fear of getting sunstroke through the fabric. We sat in the sunshine drinking our hot coffee brought from El Golea in a thermos flask and eating tinned bacon, finishing up with jam and Ryvita. A very good meal and, invigorated by our 24 minutes stop, we resumed out journey with Humfrey at the wheel.

This is Bertie’s description of the Sahara:-

Sand, red sand, rising in softly swelling dunes, as far as the eye could reach, nothing but sand, nothing. It was the moment we had both been eagerly awaiting: the desert, the real Sahara, lay below and our fantastic night journey over the Tademait was quite forgotten, for the long distance traveler must learn to forfeit past troubles, anxieties, and fears as soon as they are over and to be ever living in the present. We descended the escarpment and immediately, for the first time, we felt the full power of soft sand clutching at our wheels like some giant hand.

The musical singing shrieks that the tyres give out on this type of surface is oddly fascinating and as I write these words I can hear them again that shrill note “Wheeee – Wheee” and the nostalgia of the desert, the fascination, that once experienced is never obliterated, grips me again for vast spaces I see again the brazen sky, the red sand, the limitless horizon and a taste on my lips of the sickly sweetness and smell in my nostrils of harsh spray of the desert dust that boils up behind the flying car in a mile-long tail.  If the desert gets one, one never escapes every autumn till life leaves me, I shall feel again the drag of that is longing, for the desert has got into my blood.

Wolseley had prepared a dipstick for ‘Voortekker’ and Bertie describes it and the fuel consumption: Using the beautiful dipstick prepared for us by Wolseley’s marked both gallons and litres, we found, on working it out, that we were only doing about 14 1/2 miles to the gallon.  We had not reckoned sufficiently that the enormous amount of low gear work we were compelled to do with our heavily overloaded car was going to increase out petrol consumption to such a figure, and it meant that, with our 31 gallon supply, we could only reckon on about 435 miles on our tank and one of our stages without refueling was 465 miles!  Never mind, we should have to worry about that problem when it arose. Meanwhile, the car going so well, that we did not consider it is advisable to make any adjustments to the carburetors.

The Shell Company in London had made arrangements by which we merely signed for our petrol without paying cash and this obviate our having to carry large sums of money in all sorts of currencies, the arrangement standing for our whole journey except for crossing France.  I may say how that the scheme worked perfectly and we never had any trouble anyway in getting our signature accepted. It was a great boon and the Shell organisation must be, as is undoubted is, superb for a plan of this sort to work over such vast distances. While filling our tank we had a drink and studied our position.  We had gained 18 minutes on schedule over the last 62 miles from the escarpment and we were now just under three hours late.  We then drove to the hotel to report our arrival and arrange the depannage telegram to be sent on to Arak, our next stage.  The French manager wanted a chat with Humphrey, for he, poor devil, does not see many strange faces and this delayed us considerably while I sat in the car in the boiling sun, fuming with impatience to be off. At last Humfrey appeared, 37 minutes had been aimed at this stop.

IMG_3662[1]
From Symon’s book. Filling up from a carefully concealed Shell pump in In Salah, once a centre of Senussi rebellion, in the heart of the Sahara. The French have brought order, water, trees and flowers to this barren, troubled region. Note the wire trellis, useful for extricating the car from soft sand, on the back of the car.

Chapter 5 – Travel in the Sahara

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This is an excerpt of the chapter where Bertie explains what travel in the Sahara was like in the early 1900s.

The immense desert of the Sahara stretches from the Nile on the East to the Atlantic Ocean on the West, and from the Algerian border on the North to a line running through Timbuktu, Agades, Lake Chad and Khartoum on the south, approximately 3500 miles from east to west and 1000 from north to south. It consists for the most part of sandy wastes, arid, hot and waterless: it is lacking in rivers, in vegetation and in tillable soil. These two latter find exceptions in the infrequent oases which vary in size from such an oasis as El Golea to the proverbial 2 date palms and a well. The Sahara is by no means as featureless as many people imagine: on our route, for instance, we shall pass directly through the Hoggar Mountains, an immense range attaining a height of some good feet and stretching for 120 miles from north to south and more from east to west. Parts of this range are still unexplored and it is said that from its mineral deposits were bought the jewels of the Queen of Sheba. Also on our route is the mighty gorge of Arak, along the bottom of which we shall travel. This varies in width from half a mile to 3 or 4 miles or more, the precipitous sides of the gorge rise to some 2000 feet sheer from the valley floor. The length of the gorge from end to end is approximately 50 miles which gives some idea of its magnificent grandeur and imposing size.

Along this gorge there is a dry river bed which is filled with a rushing torrent about once every 7 years. InJalah a small walled town containing a fort, a hotel, a Shell pump and probably about 30 native houses, is stated to be the driest place in the world: the average rainfall is 1/10th of an inch in 10 years! In addition to the Hoggar Mountains and the gorge of Arak, there are several escarpments, sheer cliffs sometimes 800 – 1000 feet high where the desert descends or rises to a different level. Shifting dunes of sand are also encountered almost every where throughout the Sahara, while lava rocks, sometimes rising to 100 feet or more sheerly from the flat sand, are often encountered so that the Sahara is not monotonous at any rate by the route we are using. The outlook is continually changing, sometimes nothing but a flat sandy waste, sometimes rocky, sometimes mountainous, but hardly dull.

Bertie then goes on to describe that the Sahara was first crossed by white men in 1823 and that camel caravans had traveled across it for centuries before this. The main commodities that were traded were salt in exchange for skins, ivory and various other commodities. In 1938 the camel tracks were still in existence and camel caravans still crossed the great desert from north to south and from east to west. An interesting fact in connection with camel caravans is the regular system of pilotage which prevailed. Bertie explains caravans would take on board a pilot who knew the locality and pilot them across the desert.

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From Symons’ book: “The well at In Abengaritt, usually deserted, was the scene of a teeming mass of sheep, goats and camels.”

He goes on with an interesting account of how the French managed to control the Sahara by using Citroen motor vehicles and aeroplanes to map out the route transversing the desert. Bertie writes in the diary “how I would love that job!”

There was a trans-Sahara bus service which was inaugurated and continued while Bertie and Humfrey were transgressing the Sahara. This service, run by the SATT went from Algiers to Zindes in French Equatorial Africa and onto Kano in British Nigeria. The buses were Renaults specially built for the job. They had enormous wheels shod with single 12 inch tyres, carried 6 passengers and a fair load in goods and supplies. They were very slow and frightfully noisy. The service ran twice a week as far as Tamaurasset and once a week on to the south. It took 16 days to go from Algiers to Kano, and gauging by the jaded appearance of the passengers who they saw at Agadez on their previous journey, it seems it was a pretty sound trip. The bus of course stopped each night the fare was about ₤27 which includes hotel accommodation. The drivers of these buses were Frenchmen, specially pick for the job and real tough guys.

With regard to privately owned motor vehicles crossing the Sahara, Bertie explains that the French authorities wisely insist that certain formalities are observed, the manager of the hotel at El Golea being the person responsible for seeing that they are carried out. First he has to be convinced that somewhere aboard the vehicle there is stored 5 gallons of water per person and also that there is a supply of food sufficient to last the crew a minimum of 8 days.

Last, the owner of the vehicle is required to sign a ‘contract de depannage’ or ‘breakdown contract’ and to pay the necessary fee. This varies from 400 to 600 francs according to the horse power of the vehicle. The ‘contract de depannage’ is now compulsory. It used not to be so until a few years ago when two people, one an Englishwoman and a Belgium lost their lives in the desert and since then the authorities have made it obligatory for anyone insisting to cross the Sahara to sign this contract. The method of working is simple. When one is leaving, say, El Golea one is asked when one wants to be depannage. Suppose one starts at 6am on the Monday morning, one simply says “I wish to be depannage if I have not arrived at In Saleh” (the next desert post)”by 6pm on Tuesday”. Each of the desert posts is equipped with a wireless receiver and transmitter and a wireless message is thereupon sent from ElGolea to In Saleh, saying “Symons Wolseley left 6.00 depannage 18.00 Tuesday”. If then, delayed by a serious breakdown one has not arrived at InSaleh by 6pm on Tuesday the SATT undertakes that a rescue can/will be sent out from InSelah to find one and bring me in, so that, provided one has not wandered from the track, for the SATT naturally cannot undertake a search throughout the desert though they are pretty liberal about this one is bound to be rescued sooner or later, I say sooner or later because the cars used for this purpose are not exactly in the first flush of their youth and it is by no means unknown for the rescue car either to break down itself or to get stuck in the sand but it will arrive sometime. Still, that is the position and it is a valuable safeguard for the Sahara is a relentless enemy and one cannot afford to play the fool with it.

Remembering that if one should have lost oneself and consumed all one’s water, one cannot live more than 24 hours in the boiling heat and shadeless glare, the whole system is a wise precaution and the French government is to be complimented upon it.

This system works throughout the Sahara crossing, each post advising the next when you deguine depannage. I may say that in every case we arrived at the end of each stage before the wireless message announcing our departure from the beginning of it! But the ordinary traveller does not race across the Sahara quite as we did!

I have often been asked how we found our way. Resisting the temptation to carry on the tradition of traveler and make the most of difficulties, I do not purpose to do so.

The track is marked by little heaps of stones (“cairns”) about 18 inches high and 200 yards apart. It must be understood that these do not in any way constitute a road or path as there is just one line of them throughout: in the words they are meant purely as a guide to the direction and are not intended to be slavishly followed, though at night it is most inadvisable to miss one for fear that one may not find the next and so get lost.

It is very very easy to lose one’s sense of direction completely as there are very few landmarks to guide one. It needs a really sharp look-out at night to be sure that one does not miss a single cairn and at the same time to have one’s eyes glued to the track ahead in time to avoid obstacles in one’s path, such as gullies and rocks, and also to be ready for a lightening change down on sticking patches of deep soft sand.

The most awful dread is that of getting stuck in the sand; this may mean hours of work to get on the move again (it took Symons 23 hours on his first journey to Kano) and such a delay would mean goodbye to all hopes of beating Algiers – Kano record. So particularly at night, desert driving is nerve racking work when one is in a hurry.

Other features of Sahara travel will appear as we proceed on our way, so that we can now resume with our start from El Golea for the desert crossing proper.